BOZEMAN — It took decades, but Montana was able to wrestle away the advantage in its age-old men’s basketball series from Montana State with a sweep of the Bobcats last season. The Grizzlies have now won 149 meetings to MSU’s 148.
But the trends have favored Montana in a big way over the course of the last several seasons.
Entering Saturday’s 7 p.m. showdown between the Cats and Griz at Worthington Arena, UM has won 14 of its previous 15 outings against Montana State and 23 of the past 28 dating back to the 2004-05 campaign.
Griz coach Travis DeCuire has bested MSU’s Brian Fish in seven of their eight head-to-head matchups, with the Bobcats’ only win in that stretch coming two years ago in Bozeman.
With its eyes on a second consecutive Big Sky Conference championship, Montana doesn’t want to cede any momentum.
“It’s very easy to get up for this game,” Montana guard Michael Oguine said. “They’re going to give us everything they have. I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of success against them in my career so I want to keep that going.”
Bobcats guard Harald Frey talked earlier this week about it being MSU’s task to make this a proper rivalry again. But it won’t be easy against a Montana team (14-6, 7-2) that sits alone in second place in the Big Sky standings and is riding a four-game winning streak.
The fourth-place Bobcats (8-11, 5-4) snapped a three-game skid last Saturday when they put up 104 points in a victory over Idaho State, and they know a win over Montana will come down to defensive execution and rebounding as much as offensive output.
“Usually we’ve been able to score with most teams,” Frey said. “We’ve got to play a good defensive game.
“They’ve got scorers from every position. We’ve got to be ready to take the challenge because they’re going to come in with a lot of confidence, and we need to match that energy they’re probably going to bring.”
The chess match between MSU’s Frey and backcourt mate Tyler Hall against Montana’s guard duo of Oguine and Ahmaad Rorie always makes for good theater.
Frey is averaging 18.8 points and 5.2 assists over his last 13 games, and Hall (20.4 ppg) is the most prolific scorer in Big Sky history. The task of slowing Hall should largely fall on the shoulders of UM’s defensive stopper, Bobby Moorehead.
“Guys like (Hall), we’ve been seeing these guys about every game,” DeCuire said. “They’re going to get their points and the key for us is to make sure he takes a lot of shots.
“Their coaches give them the green light to go and get 20 (points) however you can get it. Some nights they’ll do it in 15 shots, sometimes they do it in 25 shots. We need it to be a 25-shot night.”
Oguine and Rorie, meanwhile, combine for more than 29 points per game. Yet the x-factor is 6-foot-8 post Jamar Akoh, who missed time earlier in the season with a wrist injury but has since reestablished himself as perhaps the top big man in the league.
In last Saturday’s key home win over Weber State, Akoh scored 25 points and pulled down 10 rebounds. Akoh is a force, and it will be important for his counterpart, MSU’s Devin Kirby (and to a large extent Keljin Blevins) to stay out of foul trouble in the first half.
“His shoulders are broad, he’s got a good body, he’s athletic, he’s tough, he talks a little bit of trash and kind of sets a tone,” Fish said of Akoh. “I like that. He’s one of those guys you look at and it looks like he’s fun to coach.
“He certainly had a run there of 12 points in a row against Weber State that kind of separated that game. He’s becoming a dominant inside player.”
Another strong effort from Blevins could serve as a big intangible for Montana State.
The 6-6 Blevins is at his best when the Bobcats are moving the ball and he is attacking the rim. The explosive Blevins shot nearly 60 percent (.595) in MSU’s previous three games, and averaged 18.7 points and 5.3 rebounds in that stretch.
After Saturday, the Bobcats will travel to face first-place Northern Colorado on Monday night. Montana, meanwhile, will host last-place Idaho on Thursday.
Fish has put the Bobcats’ matchup against the Grizzlies into perspective.
“People sometimes say if you beat the Griz that’s all that matters, and that’s not really the truth,” Fish said. “It’s (one of) 20 league games. It’s not a weighted math class where it’s 1½ credits. It’s one game in league play that’s at our place this time.
“It will mean a lot to the people of the state, it means a lot to the people in our program, it means a lot to their people, I’m sure. But we need to play well and continue to get better because 36 hours after that game we’re at Northern Colorado on the road and that counts the same as this one.”